Size also matters when it comes to making organic goods affordable for more consumers. Larger-scale companies can reach a larger pool of customers because of improved production and transportation efficiencies, says Houghton.
Earthbound Farm, suppliers of now-ubiquitous organic boxed lettuce, was among the earliest organic players to go big. “We’re proud to offer an organic alternative to conventionally produced food where people do the majority of their shopping: at the supermarket,” says cofounder Myra Goodman. Because Earthbound Farm is able to achieve economies of scale by large production year-round in a suitable climate, it is able to make organic more affordable and reach a larger audience. Another little-heralded economic benefit: Organic farming is more labor-intensive and provides more long-term work for skilled farm workers, thus contributing to local economies.
But while availability goes up and prices go down, Goodman also acknowledges that something important gets lost.
“Small growers can offer consumers a much more intimate connection with their food. It’s wonderful to be able to meet the people who are growing your food face-to-face, whether at a farmers’ market or while picking up your CSA box, and be able to ask questions and hear their unique stories about what’s going on in their fields or orchards,” she says. Another often-overlooked consideration: In a time when many large-scale organics are owned by conglomerates, such as Unilever and PepsiCo, smaller ones tend to be independently owned and invested in their local communities.
Because of USDA Organic standards, which took effect in 2000, all certified-organic manufacturers must comply with strict regulations and meet regular inspection requirements.
In a sense, these standards were written with organics’ soul in mind, to create a level playing field for anyone seeking to earn the trusted USDA Organic seal.
One primary function of these standards: to protect Earth. Small organic producers are nimble enough to implement new strategies or change harvest practices if necessary when prices or weather patterns fluctuate, but the sheer size of large operations often forces them to rely on gas- and water-sucking farm equipment to meet their supply goals.
Even so, says Goodman, it’s worth it. According to the USDA, there are nearly 5 million acres of organic farmland across the nation, representing less than 1 percent of total U.S. agricultural acreage. “The more people buy organic food, the more land is farmed without dangerous synthetic chemicals. Earthbound Farm alone avoids the use of more than 19 million pounds of synthetic agricultural chemicals every year; that’s a huge impact,” she says.
Organic benefits Earth’s inhabitants, too, and not just the shoppers who eat clean, toxin-free foods. Farm workers in organic fields are exposed to far fewer pesticides and herbicides compared with conventional farms, many of which require no safety measures for laborers.
Vote with your dollars
So is small always beautiful? That depends on your priorities. “While all food companies are entitled to make a profit, you should do your homework and choose to reward companies that balance the pursuit of profit with tangible, sustainable business practices,” says Houghton.
Whether you find shelves of organic cereal in a big-box store or a single organic brand in a small Idaho town, Goodman’s personal approach may simplify your decisions. “I think in this conversation about big and small organic, it’s really important not to pit one against the other and realize that all organic farming is a huge step in the direction of creating a healthy and sustainable food supply,” she says. “People need to know that when the health of their family and the environment is a top concern, they need to choose organic first and foremost. The questions of size and location are truly secondary.”